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By Joel Klebanoff

Sleepless in Technoville

A friend recently sent an email alerting me to an article that she thought might make good tirade fodder. This particular story from The Washington Post introduced research on the harmful effects of sleep deprivation by noting that "a good night's rest [is] increasingly losing out to the Internet, e-mail, late-night cable and other distractions of modern life."

Oh by the way, this friend sent the email at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time. She sent it from her home computer, but this still means that by 5:30, she already had time to get up, perform her morning ablutions, possibly grab a cup of coffee and maybe something to eat, get dressed (although I'm only guessing about that because, to the best of my knowledge, she doesn't have a Webcam, so I can't confirm that she was dressed), go to wherever she keeps her computer, turn it on, scan her news sources, identify this story as one that might interest me, and prepare an email with a brief note of her own and a link to the article--all by 5:30 in the morning! Funny, I was proud of the fact that I had been able to muster all of the strength I normally have first thing in the morning in order to drag my tired body to my computer (I work out of my home, so my work computer is my home computer) by 8:30 a.m. (I live in the Eastern time zone), just in time to receive my friend's email when it arrived. And this message was not unique. I often get emails from her at that time.

What effect might this person's early-bird habits have on her? According to the article, recent studies have shown that not getting enough sleep or sleeping at odd hours "heightens the risk for a variety of major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity."  In the cancer family, researchers have found links between a lack of sleep or irregular sleep and breast and colon cancers. Other scientists are exploring possible links to prostate cancer, although if my friend is worried about that form of the disease, then I've been suffering under major delusion about "her" for some time now.

There is an upside to all of this. The need for stimulants to keep people awake after their late night and early morning adventures with technology has probably done wonders for the coffee industry. I suggest buying Starbucks stock. You might need the earnings from that investment to cover your medical expenses.

And the situation might be even worse. The article quoted one researcher, Eve Van Cauter of the University of Chicago, as saying, "The research in this area is really just in its infancy. This is really just the tip of the iceberg that has just begun to emerge."

Considering the results of the studies cited by the article, the next time you find yourself sending or receiving email, surfing the Web, or otherwise being a slave to your technology at some ungodly hour, my advice to you is this: Turn off your computer, back away from it slowly, and nobody will get hurt. And yes, if my friend is reading this, this includes you. As much as I greatly appreciate your help in feeding me ideas, I really don't want you to risk cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or obesity just so I can get started on a new tirade first thing in my morning rather than waiting until my afternoon, which would be a much more reasonable time where you are. It's a weekly column, and I usually have two or more written and waiting to be published at any time. The extra few hours isn't going to threaten the publication deadline or stand me in better stead with my editor. Go back to sleep!

Or maybe not. A couple of years ago, I became very skeptical of all sleep research. How can you possibly study people's sleep without significantly influencing their sleep patterns, thereby invalidating the results? Consequently, I'm not so sure that I trust a single word these scientists are saying.

Let me explain. I'm constantly exhausted and have been for some time. A few years back, I informed my doctor of this condition, and after I submitted every last drop of my bodily fluids to a lab for testing, he informed me that he couldn't find anything wrong...but there was one more test that he could prescribe, a sleep study that would find out if I had conditions such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. If you have sleep apnea, you stop breathing--which science tells us is generally not a good thing if you're interested in sustaining your life whether you're asleep or awake--and you only start breathing again when you wake up very briefly. These periods of waking aren't long enough for you to notice them, but they still prevent you from getting enough REM sleep. Restless leg syndrome means that you have, well, restless legs. Extensive and expensive studies, completed under the most rigorous of conditions, have found that if you spend all night with your legs persistently twitching like you're going through your last moments in an electric chair, that doesn't make for an entirely restful sleep.

There are treatments to, if not cure, then at least compensate for these conditions. However, when my doctor first described the sleep study process to me, it didn't sound like something I wanted to go through, even if it would mean that I would finally gain a few minutes during the day when I wouldn't be frantically fighting off the desire to doze, so I said no. Then, a couple of years ago, desperate to solve my problem, I did an about-face and agreed to undergo the study. That was a mistake.

Most of you have probably never been through a sleep study, so let me explain the procedure. You arrive at the sleep lab in the evening and change into your nocturnal attire. Warning: If you usually sleep in the nude but you're not an exhibitionist, your normal lack of nighttime clothing might be a bit embarrassing under these conditions.

A technician then uses heaping mounds of glue to attach four electrodes to various points on your head. (Fortunately, the glue is water soluble. I had visions of requiring surgery to remove the electrodes.) Next, two electrodes are taped to each of your legs. Electrodes are also attached near your eyes, under your chin, and over your heart. In addition, a microphone is taped to your throat.

The technician then takes two straps with some sort of sensor mounted on them and snuggly fastens one around your chest and the other around your abdomen. The wires from all of the electrodes and other devices are then plugged into a box that hangs from a cord around your neck. It's not exactly a handsome fashion statement. The electrodes and connecting wires make you look like a cyborg out of a very old, very low budget science fiction movie. What's more, I'd recommend taking preemptory action before the technician gets his or her hands on you rather than waiting until nature calls, because the box and wires hanging down about your midsection can be a trifle inconvenient when using the lavatory.

You then go to your assigned room. There, you'll find a bed underneath a microphone and video camera that will allow the always-on-duty technicians to watch you slumber and listen to you snore. (If the results of the research quoted in the article are accurate, what do you think the life expectancies of these people are?)

Before you can go to sleep, the technician comes into your room and, for the pièce de résistance, takes a thin, flat, near-rectangular sensor with two tabs and places it such that one of the tabs resides inside each of your nostrils. No, despite what you might think, I'm not making this up. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Oh yes, I forgot, another sensor is placed on your index finger. This one, which is used to measure oxygen in the blood, includes an exceptionally bright red light that spends the night on your fingertip. All night long, it took all of my resolve to overcome the urge to point my finger and repeat aloud, "E.T. phone home. E.T. phone home."

The technician then plugs these new sensors into the box and connects a cable between the box and a wall socket that links you up to a data recorder.

With all of the preparations complete, the technician turns out the light in your room and tells you to go to sleep. Yeah, right, like that's going to happen. I found it a tad difficult to drift off with all that stuff attached to me and knowing that someone might be staring at and listening to me. Call me a prude, but I feel uncomfortable about someone watching me sleep unless I've been on at least one date with them.

The bed in the room is rather small, but I wouldn't bother worrying about tossing and turning if I were you. Well, maybe I would bother worry about it. With all of those wires attached to you, a single 180 degree rollover would be enough to strangle you and yank you into to an everlasting slumber. Hmm, maybe that was how I was supposed to fall asleep.

At six in the morning, the technician comes in to wake you up, which was not necessary in my case, since I had a wee bit of a fitful night--what a surprise--and was already awake. All of the gear is removed, and you're sent home with an appointment to return to get the results from the doctor.

When I came back for my results the doctor told me, "Unfortunately, you didn't sleep enough for us to get adequate data." So, basically, what he discovered was that I don't sleep particularly well with electrodes and other sensors stuck up my nose and taped, glued, and strapped all over my body. No, really? What an astounding finding that is, Einstein! Rush those scientific results right over to the Nobel committee. I'm sure the prize is yours for the asking. Jeez, I could have told him that without taking any tests, which would have saved the healthcare system a heck of lot of money and spared me a ton of aggravation.

What did the doctor recommend to overcome this lack of data? Let's try it again, that's what he recommended. Oh, what jolly good idea. Just wonderful. Swell. Absolutely. While you're at it, why don't you attach a few more damn sensors to me this time, maybe in some even more uncomfortable places? I'm sure that would help. As proof of either my extreme desperation to find the cause of my fatigue or my complete insanity, I'm not sure which, I agreed.

I didn't think that I slept any more the second time around than the first, but when I went back again for the results, the doctor informed me that, "We got enough data this time, and your sleep is perfectly normal. Now, please go away and let some other branch of the medical profession earn their pile money off your wretched condition." I'm paraphrasing here.

Maybe I'm a cynic, but I suspect that his satisfaction with the results had less to do with obtaining adequate data than it had to do with the fact that the provincial health insurance plan (yes, we have universal government health insurance) will only cover two of these expensive sleep studies a year. I'm sure that the doctor realized that there was absolutely no way, no way in hell I was going to pay my own money to have that torture inflicted on me a third time. One more night of sleep deprivation and I'd be naming names and ratting on my friends in front of committees.

The long and the short of it is that, after undergoing the expensive, advanced sleep studies, I find sleep research much less credible. And I'm not one whit closer to knowing why I'm always tired. So, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to sign off now and take a nap.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.



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